Category Archives: CDs

Why do we need hymns at all, when we already have the Psalms?

The title of my current post comes from the first chapter of Anthony Esolen’s book on hymnody entitled Real Music (which can be purchased here). I was blessed to purchase the book as well as have a good conversation about it with the author himself last month and want to heartily recommend the, especially for the first chapter, which is devoted to the Psalter.

The Psalter, as Esolen notes, is the prayer book of the Church and the Psalms constitute the “foundational poems of Christian praise.” Not only are the Psalms truly beautiful in an aesthetic sense (which they undoubtedly are), but also because they speak to every moment of the Christian’s life on earth as well as the life to which he is called. They plumb the depths of joy, sorrow, praise, suffering, marriage, children, life, death, God and the fight between the family of God and it’s enemies. The Psalter was also the “hymnal” of Christ and Mary, the apostles and countless saints and sinners spanning the two millennia in the life of the Church. The only other hymnal that has come close to such longevity and vitality in the Roman Rite is the Graduale Romanum, another book of rare worth.

What I especially appreciate in his chapter on the Psalter is how Professor Esolen masterfully presents the reader with the beauty of the Hebrew Psalter and its idiosyncrasies, its structure and poetic styles, all without bogging the lay reader down with too many technical details of the Hebrew language. In a sense, he is able to bypass the trees and present the beauty of the forest. He also tackles the difficulty of not only translating the Psalter into English prose (he relies upon the beautiful King James version), but also the difficulty of creating metrical versions which live up to the majesty of the originals.

I do, however, want to caution the avid connoisseur of all things liturgical in the Roman Rite. This is not a work on the great hymns of the Divine Office or other liturgical chants that might be classified as hymns. Real Music deals with what one might classify as devotional hymns, which although not officially part of the Roman Liturgy, are nevertheless important to the flowering of true piety and love. Best of all, it comes with a CD containing a number of the hymns sung by the St. Cecilia Choir from St. John Cantius in Chicago. If you aren’t able to read music, just sing them with the CD until you know them by heart. I promise you, they will become a vibrant part of your spiritual life.

Choral Evensong from Trinity College, Cambridge

Choral Evensong comes via an archived recording from the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1992.  I encourage all directors of sacred music programs to visit the choir’s website to hear recordings of an incredible choir and to see how this choir takes sacred music into the public sphere through its many incredible recordings and commissioning of new music.  Truly amazing, and a challenge to all!

St. Paul’s Choir School, Harvard Square, Boston

Today I would like to turn away from European choir schools and move closer to home, focusing on several in the United States, the first of which is St. Paul’s Choir School, Harvard Square, in Boston.

Dr. Theodore Marier, the well known chant scholar, founded St. Paul’s Choir School in the autumn of 1963, creating the first and only Catholic choir school for boys in the United States.  Today the school educates boys in grades 4 through 8.  In 2010, the choir school hired Mr. John Robinson, formerly Assistant Organist at Canterbury Cathedral, to lead the choir.  From various articles I have read, he is doing great work, such as implementing the ABRSM music theory curriculum in the school, hiring professional male singers for the choir and increasing the number of liturgies for which the choir sings on a weekly basis. Last fall, the choir released its first international CD entitled “Christmas in Harvard Square.”  The parish’s pastor sums up the music at the choir school as (quoting Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) “Music capable of opening minds and hearts to the dimension of the spirit and of leading persons to raise their gaze on High, to open to absolute Goodness and Beauty, which have their ultimate source in God.”  Would that all parish music programs could say the same.

One “take away” item I would like to share is that (if Wikipedia can be trusted!) Dr. Marier and the then pastor of St. Paul’s began the choir school in response to De music sacra, the 1958 document from the Sacred Congregation of Rites, which encouraged boys choirs and special schools for the teaching of sacred music.  All it took was the vision of one parish priest (St. Paul’s is not a cathedral) and one music director to create such an incredible institution.  Are you a priest, are you a music director?  Perhaps God is calling YOU!